The Multinational Monitor

July/August 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBERS 7 AND 8


Stopping Toxic Trade

The United States and the other industrialized nations are using the Third World as a dumping ground for hazardous chemicals and waste. Producers of these highly dangerous materials want to focus international debate on stronger export regulation of hazardous substances. An outright ban is in order, however, not prior informed consent (PIC).

PIC requires written consent from the importing country prior to shipment of hazardous substances. The distinction between PIC and previous notification schemes allows for the continued sloppy export of toxic materials.

Today the EPA is responsible for monitoring the export of hazardous chemicals. In April 1989 the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report on the EPA's dismal record of enforcing compliance with the export notice requirements for unregistered chemicals. The EPA is required to notify all governments and relevant international organizations every time it makes a significant regulatory decision on a chemical. In addition, before shipment of prohibited chemicals, importers must acknowledge that they are aware of the U.S. domestic ban. The EPA is also required to inform the importing country's government, through the State Department, of the sale of a dangerous substance. The GAO report found the EPA deficient in all of these areas. But the GAO report fails to challenge the fundamental problems of export regulation.

PIC shares this flaw. Its proponents argue that it is the best solution because it forces the receiving country to acknowledge the shipment. PIC, however, does not address the abundant problems connected with dangerous chemical exports. Third World waste handlers often lack proper protective clothing or adequate storage facilities. And too often misleading advertising and inadequate labelling lead to improper usage which results in poisoning and death. The statistics bear this out: 50 percent of pesticide poisonings and 90 percent of pesticide-related deaths occur in developing countries, despite the fact that these countries account for only 20 percent of world pesticide use.

In 1977 the United States severely restricted domestic use of the nematicide DBCP, used extensively on pineapple and banana plantations, because it was proven to cause male sterility. This action did not stop Castle & Cooke and Standard Fruit, both American banana producers, from continuing to use DBCP at their Costa Rican and Honduran plantations. Over 1,000 men were permanently sterilized from their contact with the poison.

The EPA, following the requirements of the Toxic Substances Control Act, had tried to notify governments in the developing world about DBCP but failed because the system was too cumbersome.

The DBCP tragedy is not the exception--it is the norm. A full 25 percent of the pesticides exported from the United States are restricted or banned by the EPA for domestic use. By allowing the export of these hazardous materials, the United States implies that human life in the Third World is worth less than human life in the developed world.

Adherents to PIC argue that banning impinges upon the sovereignty of the Third World. PIC's governmental acknowledgement requirement is meant to leave the ultimate decision to accept or reject the hazardous substance with the importing country. The sovereignty argument, however, obfuscates the real issues. First, it is often dictatorial regimes which make the decision to import, a decision based more on venality than on scientific evidence. U.S. companies have been more than willing to take advantage of this situation.

The money involved is staggering. For instance, Sierra Leone was offered $25 million by an American company to accept toxic wastes. Luring impoverished people with such vast sums of money to handle something so dangerous is criminal.

Second, dumping can boomerang. Many of the pesticides that are banned domestically re-enter the United States on produce from countries using these products; about 50 percent of imported produce is pesticide contaminated. And, up to 60 percent of the food the FDA has identified as tainted reaches the consumer.

Finally, it is rare that a legitimate argument can be made supporting an exception to a ban. Usually those seeking a waiver are looking for what is expedient or less costly in the short run--not what is best.

The Third World is beginning to assert its proper sovereignty by rejecting hazardous wastes from the West. In 1988, the member states of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) agreed to halt all trade in industrial waste to the continent. In addition, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) expressed concerns about the waste shipments to Africa.

As the world's largest dangerous chemicals exporter and as a major participant in the export of hazardous wastes it is incumbent upon the United States to assert its leadership in the effort to ban the trade in both areas. To pursue the prior informed consent option is to wink and assume that the developing world is somehow equipped to handle these dangerous materials. Such an approach is disingenuous and dangerous for the Third World. Laissez faire export of hazardous substances allows the industrialized countries to escape the full costs of living in the chemical age.

Endorsing a ban on the export of dangerous chemicals can only elevate the U.S. standing in the world.

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